Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday with Indigenous roots that originated several thousand years ago in what is now Mexico and Central America.   

Celebrated the day after Halloween, an integral part of the holiday is creating an ofrenda, where community members can welcome back the souls of their loved ones who have passed.  For the past few years, artist Jason Montgomery has organized local community ofrendas, or altars.   

Zydalis Bauer spoke to him to learn more about their meaning and the holiday behind them. 

Read the Full Transcript:

Jason Montgomery, Attack Bear Press: Dia de los Muertos primarily is a holiday that originated in southern Mexico. Amongst particular indigenous groups there.

It was a very local holiday. There’s actually multiple days. It’s Dias de de los Muertos.

It usually begins on the midnight of the 28th, with Dia de los Angelitos or Day of the Little Angels. It’s for children who had lost their lives, And then it moves into All Souls Day, and then finally, Dia de los Muertos proper.

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: One of the pivotal traditions of the holiday is the Ofrenda. Can you explain what an ofrenda is and what it entails?

Jason Montgomery: So, an ofrenda translated means offering. And the ofrenda is the altar that you are putting up to your loved ones who have passed on. 

In a very literal sense, Dia de los Muertos is the return of your loved one’s spirits back to the earthly realm. They literally come and visit you, and they come – and – into your household, and they commune with you. 

And so, the ofrenda, the offering is to them. It is to your loved ones. It is normally three levels. It usually starts with the base level, which is sustenance, because we believe that in the afterlife, there’s no food, there’s no water. So, there’s a bowl of water to help quench their thirst. 

The next level would be the things that they enjoyed about the world: you know, toys, there’s usually a little bit of booze, some tobacco, all of those things that that they that they would enjoy and that they would love to see. 

And then, on the top level is their photograph to remind them that we haven’t forgotten them, and so they can find their way. So, it’s a way to have the people that you love come back and be a part of them, and you remember the things that they loved, and the things that they maybe didn’t love, and you remember all of them as a person and you get to be with them for for a couple of days.

Zydalis Bauer: Looking through all of the pictures from last year and everybody just submitting the the the photos of their loved ones that they have lost, and as you were saying, the offerings, how does it make you feel as a Chicano — starting to celebrate Dia de los Muertos later on — but how does it make you feel to see the community come together and just be able to offer them a space for that remembrance and life?

Jason Montgomery: It honestly is the most fulfilling thing, as a community arts and engagement person, I think I have ever done/ It really, truly, I can’t begin to describe how meaningful it is. 

There was one individual in particular, they had shared a photo last year of their child who passed away. And I didn’t know whose child it was, and so I come from — there, there were seven Gomez women, that my grandmother’s, there was seven of them. 

And so, I just kind of put this child with my people because I was like, “Hey, you guys like babies? Look after her.” And I was telling I was telling this individual as I was walking them to the ofrenda, about this child and about how I didn’t know whose people it was, so I put them with my people, and the young woman I was with broke down crying because it was hers.

And, you know, we had a long conversation about about… how no one’s really gone and how we’re all kind of connected. 

And it was it was one of the most meaningful moments of of my of my artistic life. And you know, I will do this forever, as long as I possibly can, just based on the joy that one moment brought.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, you touched on briefly about the commercialization of the holiday and that appropriation. 

There’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. What do you hope the broader community takes away from these ofrendas?

Jason Montgomery: I really, truly hope that they understand that this is, to some members of our community, this is a religious experience, this is a spiritual experience. 

To other members of our community, this is – this is a political action, and yet other members of our community, this is a deeply important cultural action that they are taking, maybe for the first time. 

And to be respectful of that. And to understand that you know, this isn’t an esthetic, this isn’t a look that’s being put on. 

This is a a practice that has a history dating back tens of thousands of years and that we should — you know, you’re welcome to engage, we’re inviting you in, but be respectful. This isn’t an alternative to Halloween. 

This is a holiday in and of itself that’s celebrated by many, many, many people in many different ways. 

It’s also a joyous experience. Have some joy! It’s supposed to be fun! 

Like, you know, it’s you know, it’s a different look at death. But, you know, I say to everyone, just remember that culture is never an esthetic. It’s never a costume to be worn. It is something to be engaged with and learned from.